CAUTION.3/Japan Underground by Mason Jones C A U T I O N

Indie Music Japan

by Mason Jones

This time around, I want to introduce you to some of the heavier side of things, both punk and metal. The introduction is courtesy of San Franciscoís Howling Bull America label. As you might guess from the name, HBA are the American side of Howling Bull Records, a long-running Japanese institution devoted to the punk, thrash, and underground metal scenes. The relationship isnít exclusive, though, so HBA are bringing over more than just their Japanese partnerís bands.

Thanks to these fine folks, those of us in the U.S. are able to get our hardcore fix without paying through the nose for imports. The label started out with, appropriately enough, a compilation CD that serves as an appetizer of things to come as well as a way to check out whatís up and see what bands you might want to spring for a full-length album by. The compilation is Faster, Pussy - Attack! Tora! Tora! Tora! (HBA-001), and it features eighteen tracks of harder, faster, louder styles from Japan. One of my favorites, Yellow Machinegun, open the CD with a super-fuzzed attack topped by harsh vocals reminiscent a little of Coa, but even more so of the late lamented (by me, anyway) Osaka group Anti-Septic. Force are even harder, in a Carcass-like grindcore way. There are too many tracks to describe the compilation completely, but some highlights include the nimble rhythmic impact of Nunchaku, the throaty shouting of Yellow Machinegunís "Something Enormous," Space Combineís Helmet-like guitar assault, and the goofy punk rock of Panorama Afro. Other heavy-hitting bands involved include Taiho, United, Garlic Boys, and Hellchild. If youíre at all curious about the more intense end of hardcore, youíll definitely want to check this out.

Howling Bull America made a smart move and chose Yellow Machinegun for their second release. The album, Spot Remover (HBA-002), has fifteen songs in half an hour, so these women are clearly moving at high speed. This is definitely heavy stuff, though the cute photographs in the booklet might lead you to expect differently. Kyoko Moriyaís guitar is great, throwing up thick distorted riffs that Kaori Okumura shouts and growls over while keeping the bass hard and heavy. Tamami Ohkadoís drums keep it all moving forwards in fine fashion. Songs like "Freezer" demonstrate a great way of throwing stops and starts in while keeping everything going full-speed. Itís also nice that the booklet contains lyrics, because Kaori is singing in English, and the words are pretty interesting -- sometimes serious ("Something Enormous") and sometimes goofy ("Hip Tail"). I definitely will look forward to the chance to see these folks play live, because Iíll bet itís even more energetic than this album is. If anyone tells you that Shonen Knife is a good example of women punk rockers in Japan, just shove this down their throat and theyíll shut up fast.

Taiho were unfamiliar to me before I heard HBAís initial compilation CD, but the full-length CD was a nice find. Titled Chugalug (HBA-005), itís some pretty heavy stuff. The band, a trio, hail from Nagano, and churn out super-thick thrashcore well-suited to their name (which means "big cannon"). Iím not quite up enough on the hardcore scene in Japan to come up with many comparisons, but some names like Garlic Boys, Cocobat, and labelmates Yellow Machine Gun do come to mind. Some tracks also brought to mind the early sound of Helmet. Songs like "On Post" combine all of the instruments into a huge rhythmic lurch, with the bass and guitar playing alongside each other, and with the drums. It makes the whole song into a big steamroller that gives you no choice but to bang your head. Powerful stuff, and the vocals are intense without being the typical gargle-monster sound effects. The calm break during the title track, also, shows that the band arenít afraid to slow down at times when it suits the song. Very nice.

One of the bigger names on Howling Bullís roster is the Garlic Boys. The Osaka-based band started in 1985, and have been one of the leaders in the Japanese punk scene since then. Their sound has ranged from hardcore thrash to more relatively melodic punk rock, and their latest albums demonstrate the bandís range pretty well. The American edition of Poem (HBA-008) also includes bonus tracks from the bandís Hustle EP, and overall shows the faster-louder approach pretty well -- but always, the bandís weird sense of humor is evident, such as the cowpunk guitar line of "Matsunagasan" or the opening "la-la-la" of "Wave". But the fast thrash of songs like "Alibi" are fine examples of the Garlic Boysí pogo-appeal. Love (HBA-006) is perhaps slower, but Iíd say itís catchier -- not in an overly pop way, but the songs stand out from each other better, and rather than relying on sheer power to make their point, the instruments have room to breathe, and the vocals are more expressive. Still pretty funny, too, such as "Nakimushi Death Match" and "Kiwamono Fetish Club". The Boys continue churning out good stuff after all these years, and punk fans would be foolish not to check these out.

The other big name from HBA is Hellchild, whose super-ultra-flattening-heavy sound has been making waves both in their home country and overseas for quite some time now. Their first album for HBA, Circulating Contradiction (HBA-003), left me somewhat nonplussed, but Bareskin (HBA-012), the follow-up, impressed me a bit more. Deep, heavy chugging guitars with occasional lead breaks, the ten tracks on Circulating Contradiction are all fairly similar, which is perhaps the bandís weakness. Itís heavy stuff, with effected, guttural vocals that blend in and become another instrument since thereís no hope at all of understanding anything theyíre saying. The band kindly included the lyrics in the booklet, which makes them almost more like poetry accompanying the songs. I tried to read along and couldnít even figure out which line was being said. It made me wonder a little bit why they included the lyrics at all. But overall, I felt as though after Iíd heard the first few songs I pretty much knew what the rest were going to sound like, and I was right. Occasionally they bring in recordings of some other sounds and voices (maybe taken from films?), and even that helps to make a song stand out, but those seem to only be used briefly, and not really integrated in with the songs themselves.

I hoped for more compositional variation next time around, and with Bareskin Hellchild delivered to some extent. The four-piece have given the songs more room to stretch out, with the result that itís not all ultra-heavy chug-chug-chug, and the guitar takes breaks that lend more structure to the songs. I definitely thought this was a more impressive collection of songs than Circulating Contradiction, but Iím still hoping for more variation -- the guitar sound, though it takes more detours this time out, continues to be too similar overall. More breaks like the one in "In This Freezing Night" would help a lot to give the songs more individual personality. But nonetheless, this albumís an improvement, to my mind, and theyíre certainly worth your time if youíre into the heavy side of things.

Thereís not room to cover every release in detail here, but some of the other bands worthy of note include:

Check out Howling Bull Americaís web site at http://www.howlingbull.com or visit their store if you pass through San Francisco, on Valencia Street near 19th Street. Then you can thank them in person for making this stuff available at cheap prices with good packaging.

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